Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Dec 25, 2023 6:06 pm 
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CALLUM TURNER, CENTER, IN THE BOYS IN THE BOAT

Underdogs tearing up the water

This is another of Clooney's historical films, set in the 1930's, similar in feel to Chariots of Fire but without the anti-semitism. Its hero is part of several paradoxes. He's a "loser," abandoned at 14, unable to pay his University of Washington tuition, living in the hulk of a car on the edge of a Seattle shantytown: but he's a broad shouldered blond god who moves with swagger. His name is Joe Raenz (English actor Callum Turner, the caddish Frank Churchill in the lively 2020 Emma). The other paradox - a very necessary one, for Clooney's conventional style of filmmaking - is that while this is about rowing, where the eight become one, a competition at its best "more poetry than sport," a lot of it's about two individuals, Joe, and tough and unsmiling U of W head rowing coach Al Ubrickson (Australian vet Joel Egerton, whose cinematic authority can be traced back to David Michôd's fabulously accomplished Animal Kingdom.[). But there is no dramatic battle between them. There is a temporary clash, but it is quickly smoothed out.

Everything about this movie is aces, from the sweeping score of Alexandre Desplat to the restrained period sets and costumes and the images of German cinematographer (of Anton Corbjin's elegant-looking B&W Control), and it will satisfy anyone seeking period flavor that's palpable yet restrained and the thrill of victory in one of the most challenging and most beautiful of sports. And yet, in an obvious way, alas, this movie is almost mediocre, because it lacks any palpable originality or edge or the ability to surprise you. Clooney does not strive for those thihngs, but for historical accuracy and smooth beats.

This movie can inform you, though. That shanty town was an eyeopener for me. It made the depression as vivid as anything I've ever seen. There is a sort of deep, honest, ingrained, lasting poverty about it unlike the homeless encampments of today: it makes you understand how very much poorer Americans were in the 1930's. Then, when Joe and his friend Roger (Sam Strike) decide to try out for the University of Washington rowing team, there's a lot to be learned about rowing. It seems dozens and dozens come to try out, perhaps a hundred. They will work very hard, and only nine will be chosen, eight and one alternate. Joe and his friend are there because a job and lodging come with team membership. It's a lift out of poverty and allows him to keep; studying engineering.

Then we learn not only is this a sport that demands more than the body is quite equipped to give, but that in the eight-man scull each team member has a different part to play, though success of the highest kind comes only when they move and breathe as one. There are more specific details about competition rowing, too evanescent to detail here, more appreciated if you are a student of the sport. We can appreciate the fine crafting of the boat, which Joe shares in as an apprentice to British builder and assistant coach George Pocock (Peter Guinness), who talks him back to the team after a failure of motivation and together with him lovingly smooths out the hull's many gleaming layers of lacquer.

We also learn about the other, on-line coach of a rowing team, Bobby Moch (Luke Slattery) the coxswain or "cox," a small man who sits up front at the helm facing the rowers with a small megaphone. In the first competition Bobby disobeys Ubrickson's instructions and gives the new JV team its head, showing what winning speed and endurance they have. But we realize how crucial coordination between Cox and coach must be, how many parts there are that must work together.

It appears that Seattle itself was impoverished, and new, in 1936, and the University of Washington, whose rowing team had underdogs in it like Joe, was a ne-er-do-well too, a working class team in a far more stratified world than today's, much less well-funded than Cal B erkeley and worlds apart from the privilege of east coast schools in the rowing competition for the Olympics that year, Harvard, Yale, Columbia.

This team Joe is part of is a new team, the junior varsity team, and the discovery is that its eight young men are the best Coach Ulbrickson has ever seen: and so he makes the radical choice of sending the junior varsity team to the Olympic tryouts at Poughkeepsie, New York, for the U.S. Intercollegiate Rowing Association, and not the four-year veteran team of the university, earning the wrath of the needy university administration.

This is not the easiest sport to make exciting. The most intense competitions consist of long vertical lines sliding along beside each other, one or another inching a little ahead. But Clooney's film, from a bestselling book of a decade ago by Daniel James Brown, adapted here by Mark L. Smith, tells a story that coheres as a whole. It's admirable for its understatement even though a number of its lines are too over-explanatory. We get that these are underdogs, without being told over and over. But what's nice is that the fact that they're going to compete in Hitler's Olympics at Berlin, with Jesse Owens (notable African-British actor Jyuddah James, barely glimpsed here) on the American team, destined to confound the Nazis, with their "Aryans only" sports policies, by winning four gold medals - but none of that is emphaisized, except to have Owens tell his teammates he'll be competing not to show the Germans, but to show the people back home. (No mention of Leni Riefenstahl and her famous film about this Olympics, which also would have distracted from the US rowing story.)

We glimpse Hitler, at the rowing competition, which America winds by a photo-finish (they had those then), despite the Germans cheating to load the race in against us, and turning and walking out to escape the prize awarding. But all of this is understated. First of all HItler was hiding his racism and antisemitism for the Olylmics, Second, the boys from Washington weren't in Berlin to teach anybody a lesson. They weren't concerned that this was the Nazi Olympics but that it was theirs.

It's agreed this is less clunky and heavy handed than Clooney's Leatherheads (it hasn't rated any higher with critics); more memorable than the prolific actor-turned-director's last three features since then. Its pleasures are restrained and it does not strive for originality but a period flavor. That is Clooney's way. For what it is, it is good. And it moves Callum Turner closer to being a star. When his childhood sweetheart Joyce (Hadley Robinson) practically jumps into his arms, it's not surprising. He gets to exude a wealth of charisma and sex appeal here.

This is one of those holiday entertainment releases for Christmas, outside the awards excitement, outside the high critical ratings, but good fun for the holidays and doubtless, in its careful timelessness, destined to be an entertaining but unchallenging watch for years to come.

The Boys in the Boat, 124 mins., premiered in Seattle, Dec. 7, 2023, opened in US and Canadian cinemas Dec. 25, 2023, and in the UK, Australia and Ireland in Jan. 2024. Metacritic] rating: 51%.

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